FEATURE: The media, climate change and responsibility
CDKN Africa’s Claire Mathieson looks at the role of journalists in informing the voting public on climate change and the issues they encounter in getting the message out.
“The media has a huge responsibility in shaping the understanding of the public as far as climate change is concerned.” This is the mantra driving environmental journalists covering climate change. And while there is a challenge to get climate stories into the news, the more difficult job seems to be the presentation of the science; stories need to attract readers, but also inform them – a balance that science-based journalism has often struggled to offer the general public.
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges that humanity is facing, and sub-Saharan Africa is likely to be one of the hardest hit. According to ODI’s Geography of poverty, disasters and climate extremes report “up to 325 million extremely poor people will be living in the 49 most hazard-prone countries in 2030,” the majority in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. And while it’s up to policy makers to shape the way we govern action around climate change, it is the voting public that chooses who will represents their needs. It is therefore important that the African public knows about climate change –especially in a year when a new climate deal is being negotiated and agreed upon.
But where does the average person on the street learn about climate change and its impacts? The media, in it’s watchdog capacity, has a vital role to play, but how much responsibility has it taken in addressing one of the biggest issues to face our world today?
“The majority of editors are not interested in climate change stories. Most consider the stories too scientific and difficult to understand and consequently less appealing to readers and viewers,” says Arison Tamfu, a journalist working in Cameroon. “Personally, I find it hard to get climate change stories in the media – especially in mainstream media,” he says. Mr Tamfu believes the media are less interested in the climate-related stories because of their complicated nature, but he is working on communicating them better.
For Zimbabwean journalist and climate change columnist Jeffrey Gogo, editors are only starting to ‘warm up to the subject’. A ‘decent’ story, he says, will only ever occupy page two or three. A disaster will get headlines, but anything ‘soft’ will be positioned at the back of the newspaper. “Even when presented simply, climate change is still viewed as a soft topic by editors when compared to politics or business.”
That sentiment is felt across the continent. According to Kenyan TV journalist Zeynab Wandati, if it ‘bleeds, it leads’. “That’s just how the media works,” she says. “The grimmer the scenario, the higher the chances that the story will get on air.” In her experience, if the shock is climate related, it will make the headlines, but if it’s an ordinary story, it’s not uncommon for it to be cut back or cut out to make more time for political stories.
But that’s not because editors think climate stories are unimportant. It’s often about how the stories are presented to the editors for potential inclusion – they’re either lacking or lose out to something more attractive. Editor of the City Press newspaper, the third-biggest-South African national weekly, Ferial Haffajee, says climate change can be ‘dull’. “I find the way it is written by specialist journalists and communicated by civil society is very alienating, filled often with jargon and advocacy.”
Ms Haffajee says editors are interested in ‘real’ stories. “I am interested in real stories that show the impacts of climate change without telling me about it. I am interested in graphics, in rigorous information and in how ordinary people are dealing or coping.” Climate change has to be articulated in a particular way to make it into the news.
For the Cameroonian journalist, the most successful climate change stories are those with a human interest. “For too long, climate change stories have been lifeless and predictable. You can give these stories impact by putting people in them – because ultimately, climate change is about changing lives, and that’s what readers and viewers relate to.” Mr Gogo says people are looking for hope, ‘doom and gloom’ stories can only add to their misery. “They want to know in what ways they can respond to challenges caused by climate change. There is no better story than of an individual already doing that.”
“We do enjoy profiling good leaders and advocates for mitigating the impacts of climate change,” says Ms Haffajee about her newspaper’s readers. Without a doubt she says readers prefer human stories over technical and political stories. “The best one we’ve done is how ordinary people have gotten the message of sustainability – a family who installed solar and rung the changes; another family which recycles very well,” says the veteran editor. These are always ‘well-read’.
“[My editor] understands that climate change is a global crisis that must be given prominence and supports me,” says Ms Wandati, who covers science-related stories and has a Friday-night feature that focuses on food security in Kenya. She says her newsroom understands the importance of the topic, but relaying the message to the public is not always easy.
Ms Wandati is part of a CDKN project that sees the support of journalists to cover climate change in Africa. In particular, the project seeks to help articulate the position of the African Group of Negotiators to the public through mainstream media. Ms Wandati believes the problem of communicating climate change messages comes when putting the information into a language people can understand and making that seem interesting. She says a lot of ordinary people she’s interacted with have sometimes voiced the concern that they read or saw a story about climate change and didn’t understand a word of it. “Never become such an expert in your field that you become arrogant about it,” says Wandati. “If the audience doesn’t understand, then they won’t learn anything.” The challenge, she says, is to constantly make climate change something that people can digest – and want to!
“Journalists are duty-bound to educate and inform the public on climate change. The issue affects both the rich and the poor, though at different scales,” says Mr Gogo. “Journalists reflect developments in society of their times and climate change is one such reflection.” Journalists, he says, need to keep trying to communicate that message.